Wednesday, May 06, 2015

People you should've heard about: John Bardeen

If you ask the average person to name a physicist, chances are they'll mention Einstein, Hawking, and possibly Sheldon Cooper.  Maybe Richard Feynman, Brian Greene or (*sigh*) Michio Kaku.  I'd like to have an occasional series of posts pointing out people that should be well-known, but for some reason are not.  High up on that list:  John Bardeen, who is the only person one of only two people to win two Nobel prizes in the same field.

Bardeen, like many of his contemporaries, followed what would now be considered a meandering, unconventional trajectory into physics, starting out as an undergrad engineer at Wisconsin, working as a geophysicist, enrolling as a math grad student at Princeton, and eventually doing a doctoral thesis with Wigner worrying about electron-electron interactions in metals (resulting in these two papers about how much energy it takes to remove an electron from a metal, and how that can be strongly affected by the very last layer of atoms at the surface - in the 1980s this would be called "surface science" and now it would be called "nanoscience").

Bardeen was a quiet, brilliant person.  After WWII (during which he worked for the Navy), he went to Bell Labs, where he worked with Walter Brattain to invent the point contact transistor (and much more disagreeably with William Shockley), explaining the critical importance of "surface states" (special levels for the electrons in a semiconductor that exist at the surface, where the periodic potential of the lattice is terminated).  Shockley is viewed in hindsight as famously unpleasant as a co-worker/boss - Bardeen left Bell Labs in large part because of this and ended up at Illinois, where seven years later he worked with Bob Schrieffer and Leon Cooper to produce the brilliant BCS theory of superconductivity, earning his second Nobel.  (Shockley's borderline abusive management style is also responsible for the creation of modern Silicon Valley, but that's another story.)

During and after this period, Bardeen helped build the physics department of UIUC into a condensed matter physics powerhouse, a position it continues to hold.  He was very interested in the theory of charge density waves (special states where the electrons in a solid spontaneously take on a spatially periodic density), though according to Lillian Hoddeson's excellent book (see here, too) he had lost the intellectual flexibility of his youth by this time.  

Bardeen contributed greatly to our understanding and advancement of two whole classes of technologies that have reshaped the world (transistors and superconductors).  He was not a flamboyant personality like Feynman (after all, he was from the Midwest :-) ), and he was not a self-promoter (like Feynman), but he absolutely deserves greater notoriety and appreciation from the general public.

15 comments:

Massimo said...

The man who changed the world twice?
When it comes to Superconductivity, though, I have heard dissenting opinions regarding his contribution to BCS, as well as the way in which he promoted it.

Anonymous said...

what's your issue with Michio Kaku? re: *sigh*

Douglas Natelson said...

Massimo, do tell, please. My knowledge of the history is based strongly on Hoddeson's book, and I don't recall implications that he either didn't pull his weight or that he inaccurately promoted it.

Anon@10:42, Kaku deliberately promotes highly speculative/bordering-on-sci-fi ideas as mainstream. Popularization is good; wildly hype-ridden popularization is much less so.

Anonymous said...

Fred Sanger won the Chemistry prize twice.

Anonymous said...

I've read that some of Bardeen's neighbors and golf-buddies did not even know about his Nobel prizes until he passed away and they read the obituaries in the newspapers. It says really good things about Bardeen (I'm not sure what it says about his neighbors and golfing companions though).

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@4:41 - You are absolutely correct, and I even knew that. Dang. Senior moment.

Gautam Menon said...

I really liked Lillian Hoddeson's book and have not heard anything about "dissenting opinions regarding his contribution to BCS, as well as the way in which he promoted it". Perhaps this refers to Bardeen's initial opposition to Josephson tunnelling?

Even there, though, the argument was on technical grounds and Bardeen was simply wrong, a fact he accepted when the paper by Anderson and Rowell came out. And of course, his later CDW work was controversial, because it argued that CDW transport could only be understood quantum-mechanically and not classically, whereas most current opinion would go with the belief that CDW dynamics can be understood classically. But this doesn't relate to BCS.

Anonymous said...

Don't mean to be obnoxious, but why does Bardeen deserve 'notoriety'?

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@7:45, that's a fair question. I'm not saying that Bardeen should be a celebrity. However, here is a person whose science had a pivotal impact on two major domains of technology that shaped the world, and he's a pretty obscure figure. Personally, I think that's a shame. In the same way that I'd like it if more people had an appreciation for science (both the beauty of how the world works and the utility of the scientific, critical reasoning approach to many topics), I think there are some stories (of people and events) in science that are worth broader dissemination. Like I wrote on my webpage years ago, somehow it's socially unacceptable for me not to know that James Joyce was a remarkable Irish author, or that Albert Camus was an existentialist, but it's socially fine for people not to know that JJ Thomson discovered the electron. People are of course free to hold divergent opinions on this, but it bugs me.

thm said...

way off-topic but on the question of why it's 'socially unacceptable' to be unaware of James Joyce or Albert Camus but 'socially fine' not to know of e.g. JJ Thompson: My own thinking on this was clarified when I read Paul Fussell's Class. Sometime in the 19th century, the colleges that did exist transformed from a focus on religious education for ministers to a sort of finishing school for the upper classes. As such, college curricula heavily reflected upper class values, placing a premium on the esoteric and impractical, while considering more practical subjects to be vulgar. Their graduates, infused with these values, then staffed the growing number of colleges opening across the nation, and these values persist today at the nation's elite colleges. (One of the best illustrations of the upper-class attitudes is in the film The Aviator, when Howard Hughes meets Katherine Hepburn's family at their estate.)

Anonymous said...

@Doug, this is the same as Anon@7:45: I meant that usually, 'notoriety' means fame and celebrity in a negative context, like 'infamous'. I am definitely not disagreeing with you that Bardeen deserves to be more well-known, but it just wasn't clear to me that there were any stories that would tarnish his reputation (unlike Shockley, for example, whom we can definitely agree is a notorious figure).

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, thanks. Poor word choice on my part - I didn't mean "notoriety" in the same sense as "notorious" :-) The evolution of language (English in particular) is quite funny sometimes. "Terrific" used to mean "inspiring terror". A great book on the subject: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Doug. John Bardeen and Phil Anderson: my favorite condensed-matter physicists of the 2nd half of the 20th century.

I guess a scientist's fame is not just a function of the quality of the papers he wrote for himself, but also of other intangible contributions such as how well he communicated with other scientists, helping and inspiring others to produce great science. And, let's face it... CMP is also much harder to convey to the public, or even to budding scientists.

Among the two-time Nobel winners, don't forget Marie Curie also. And Linus Pauling.

Douglas Natelson said...

thm, I have that book at home. Good stuff. In this case, though, I think accessibility of information is an issue. The "prerequisites" for reading and appreciating The Stranger or "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" are much lower than for most physics.

Anon@8:20 - thanks. Curie and Pauling won their pairs of Nobels in different fields, and one could argue that this makes them even more remarkable (though the peace prize is very political, and the choice to have one Curie prize in chem and the other in physics is rather arbitrary).

David Brown said...

At Bell Labs, Murray Hill, NJ, 23 December 1947 there was the first successful demonstration of a transistor. Undenam iter ducere?
"Eighty percent of the world's employment in the developed world is stuff that computers have just learned how to do." — Jeremy Howard
TED Talks, Jeremy Howard, The wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn, 2015